I tried my hand at converting a normal recipe for the slow cooker this week! I found this recipe for a spiced venison stew with chocolate on BBC Good Food, and thought it sounded really nice. I always wanted to try a stew or chili with chocolate – to see what kind of a difference it may make. I like dark chocolate with chili in it – and when I lived in Italy my favourite ice cream shop made an amazing chili chocolate ice cream – so the idea of that hint of chocolate in a hearty stew was intriguing. However, my local supermarket didn’t stock venison, so I had to go with beef instead.
Having experimented a little with my slow cooker so far (the three bean chili, a beef stew that turned out way too dry, two different batches of peanut butter shredded chicken, and a parsnip and apple soup that was more reminiscent of apple sauce) I’ve come to believe that mine is a bit stronger than may be usual. When I made the beef stew and the first batch of shredded chicken I followed the cooking time exactly and they both turned out really dry. For the second batch of chicken I took off 30 min of the lower estimate and it was still a bit dry. I don’t know if there’s any way that you can figure out what the heat is (instruction manual maybe) but since I was cooking beef I figured I’d be ok even if it was a little bit underdone.
Scouring the internet for how to convert recipes I found a number of articles that set out very similar tips. Essentially it seemed that your best bet is to take soups or stews since they’re often ‘slow cooked’ anyway and since they contain a good bit of liquid. Lifehacker provided me with a slow cooker conversion chart by One Good Thing by Jilliee, but like I said above I made my own adaptions to the cooking times.
Conventional recipe time Slow cooker time on low Slow cooker time on high
15-30 min 4-6 hours 2-3 hours
35-45 min 6-8 hours 3-4 hours
50 min – 3 hours 8-10 hours 4-6 hours
My stew falls into the last category (about 2.5 hours) but my previous experience has shown that cooking the food on the low setting for the time specified as the high estimate on the high setting (i.e. cooking the stew on low for 6 hours in this case) may be the way to go. So this time I went with my gut.
There are also a few things they say you should think about in terms of the ingredients – the big thing being the liquid. If your recipe is a soup or stew, or something else that already has liquid in it, the tip is to reduce the liquid by half. If your original recipe doesn’t have any liquid (or sauce) in it you should instead add 100-125 ml water to it – to create the steam needed for the slow cooker to reach its cooking temperature.
As for meat and vegetables, the general tip is to brown/sear any meat – unless you want to shred it – and seafood going in the pot. Obviously you don’t have to sear the meat, but they say it enhances the flavour and it helps in that it removes some of the excess fat which otherwise will just end up in your broth. Onions and garlic on the other hand should apparently always be browned first, or it will be too strong in flavour.
I like my vegetables with a bit of a bite still in them, and have found that even on the low setting, 6 hours in a slow cooker does mushy things to them. Most of the tips I read online said that hard vegetables like carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, swede, parsnips, etc. can go in right at the beginning, but I would say that if you’re able to (i.e. you’re not cooking it overnight or while you’re at work) it’s nicer to add your vegetables halfway through. Softer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, peas, etc. should always be added nearer the end, or they’ll disintegrate in the stew. Another tip on the root vegetables (if you have to add them at the beginning) is to wrap them in foil and place on top of the beef, and then stir them in when the cooking time is over. This way they’ll stay a little bit firmer.
I haven’t yet tried a recipe containing dairy products or rice or pasta so I can’t comment on the next tips, but apparently any dairy products – milk, cheese or other – should be added in the last 30-60 minutes of cooking, and rice and pasta should be parboiled and added at the end – with just enough time left to heat through.
If your recipe calls for a thickening agent to be added to the sauce/broth, wait until the end. My tip (based on what I’ve done with my other stew) would be to reduce the cooking time by 30-45 minutes. Once finished cooking, combine cornstarch and water until no lumps remain(the quantities vary but a good basis is 4 tbsp water and 2 tbsp cornstarch) and add to the slow cooker. Cook on high for 30 minutes. Another option is to remove the broth/sauce from the slow cooker and reduce it on the hob (stove in American), or to simply remove the lid on the slow cooker and cook on high for 30 min. I haven’t tried the last way, but the cornstarch approach is tried in tested in many regular recipes, so I’ll probably keep using that.
When I was doing my conversion prep I read somewhere that the liquid in your recipe should still cover your meat and vegetables completely. When I had halved my wine and beef stock it was nowhere near covering everything, so I added the other half of the stock to make up the full amount. However, when the stew was done, there was then way too much liquid, and even reducing it on the hob with added cornstarch mix didn’t make it thick enough in time for me to pop to work this morning. So I think I should have maybe stuck with the halving of the liquid rule. (Also, adding more beef stock compared to the wine will have changed the flavour of the stew compared to the original recipe – for better or worse I don’t know.)
Either way I’m going to keep experimenting with my sloow cooker until we’re best friends and I know all its secrets, likes and dislikes. And I’ll post my adapted recipe for the stew tomorrow or Thursday.